Friday, April 23, 2010

The Apples In Stereo, "Travellers In Space and Time"

A few thoughts about the new Apples in Stereo LP, "Travellers In Space and Time."

- I have been singing the praises of disco-era Electric Light Orchestra for a long time. Conventional wisdom has the band starting to suck on "Discovery" (which snarky ex-band members refer to as "Disco Very" -- ha ha ha, assholes, you were the ones in the wide-collar suits, not us) but that's just leftover anti-disco sentiment bleeding through into a modern era that really should be beyond those prejudices, considering all the crap that's happened in the interim. Pre-"Discovery," ELO were a "headphone band," i.e. the kind of group you enjoyed whilst sitting on your beanbag chair with a bag of maui wowie and a pair of bulky 'phones, staring at the UFOs on their album covers and wishing our alien overlords would finally take over. On "Discovery" and "Time," you could either headphone 'em or dance to 'em, because they retained all the qualities (fiddly arrangements, nifty mixes, spacey ring-modulated vocals) that made 'em hi-fi geek fodder AND they inherited a highly passable four-on-the-floor. It sounds like music from the future, but a late-70s future -- imagine Gil Gerard as Buck Rogers boogie-ing in a flashy outer-space disco and you're halfway there. It's nifty stuff.

- Let's talk about pastiche music for a moment. Brief pause to define terms, from Wikipedia: A pastiche is a literary or other artistic genre that is a "hodge-podge" or an imitation. Rock and roll has always been about progress -- or at least, there's an element who would have you believe that rock music must always retain forward momentum. The music of NOW must sound like NOW and anything that sounds like THEN is pastiche and therefore less desirable or less interesting. Never mind that certain great rock songs -- "Come Together," say, or "Bohemian Rhapsody," to grab a couple randomly -- are basically pastiche. Never mind that ELO as a band basically trafficked in pastiche which at the time was called a pale Beatles imitation and now is recognized as forward thinking and entirely of its era. It's still seen as less desirable than music that sounds like TODAY (even though of course music of today is really just a series of influences filtered through modern technology or production techniques...but anyway).

I've always been quite forgiving of pastiche, obviously. To me, exploring a past or particular musical genre is just a vehicle for song delivery, and if you have the songs to back it up, how they're arranged -- if they feature instruments from a past style, like sitars or vintage synths -- is less important than whether the song is worth a great god-damn. In other words: if you have some killer hooks and great melodies, I don't care if you wrap your song in a chamber orchestra or tibetan throat singing. The key is the song.

- That all said, I have possibly underrated Apples In Stereo in the past because I didn't think they had the songs. To me, their albums sounded like exercises in genre exploration more than a collection of great songs. Sure, they occasionally produced excellent tunes -- I particularly loved "Signal In The Sky" off the Powerpuff Girls soundtrack, I played that over and over at the time -- and god knows Robert Schneider is revered as both a producer (Neutral Milk Hotel! Apples In Stereo!) and an outspoken proponent of cool music (The Smile-era Beach Boys! The Zombies!) but I've often found their stylistic imitation somewhat less good than the music they were imitating, which to me is a sign of unsuccessful pastiche.

- However, this new record? DOES NOT HAVE THAT PROBLEM. Basically, it sounds like the great lost ELO record from the "Discovery" / "Time" era, and drags in elements of other groups (Styx, Journey, the Cars, "Off The Wall"-era Michael Jackson) that I love, but manages to back that up with easily the best songs they've ever written. I mean, that's a tough one, trying to sound like unhip late-70s future-disco; you really have to have some magnificent songs to back that up, and if you're trying to create a dance groove, you also have to be totally comfortable with the elements of dragging people to the dance floor otherwise (I'm looking at you, BECK HANSON) you come off looking like a dilettante white boy, and that's bad.

But oh, the songs! There are six songs on here that should have been out-of-the-box #1 hits in some kind of alternate future where ELO's sound totally stuck and punk never happened. The best is "Hey, Elevator," which is every bit as good if not better than, say, an ELO dance classic like "Last Train To London" or "Shine A Little Love." But there's also "Dance Floor," "No One In The World," "Told You Once," "Nobody But You," and the left-field ballad hit "Wings Away," each one completely amazing, with unimpeachable melodies, fantastic hooks, totally plausible dance beats, and every detail in place from the vocoder backing vocals to the synth blips and bleeps. They're perfect. That's the only word for 'em. Successful pastiche? Yeah, when you actually manage to surpass the albums you're aping, I'd say that's successful.

Furthermore: even the filler tracks are great. "Dignified Dignitary" takes the riff from "Do Ya" and mutates it into a mod barnstormer. The bouncy "It's Alright" takes bits from sunshine pop and combines them with dancefloor breakdowns. And the brief, a capella "Strange Solar System" features Dalek harmonies singing one of the most sublime melodies I've yet heard this year. It's seriously fantastic.

- That all said, this album is so fucking fantastic it's making me think I might have underrated the Apples In Stereo's past work. I think I may have unfairly dismissed them as the Neutral Milk Hotel / Olivia Tremor Control's twee little brothers -- in fact, I know I did. And while I realize there isn't a precedence for this kind of disco/pop hybrid in their back catalog (it's far more 60s psych-pop based, if you don't know 'em), I wonder if I missed out on some melodies and hooks while pooh-poohing them. Once I'm done with this album, I'm gonna go back and re-listen and re-evaluate.

- Meantime, if you have any fondness for this type of music, or if you need some shit to get a party started, you need to check out this album pronto. It's the first album this year I can 100% wholeheartedly recommend.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A little bit about the new songs I've been writing

Tonight at Voltage 2010 -- you're all going, aren't you? Of course you are. That is, the ones that live in Minneapolis, everybody else I will forgive this time -- you will hear three newish songs. They stand out a little bit from the heavy psych guitar crunge on our single, and people have definitely noticed and mentioned 'em to us. There's a reason for that.

See, I've always been entranced by John Hughes films from the 80s. It's not just the films themselves, which of course can be assailed from all kinds of critical perspectives but are, as they say in the Rutles, elevated from beta-potential films to the primary proponents of aeolian cadenzic musical form (ha) by the fact that they were essentially our lives in miniature. That is: they're how we wished our lives were, or a kind of capsule version of 'em with hollywood gloss and wittier dialog and less puking into toilets and hoping your parents wouldn't hear.

But for years and years and years, it has been so damn uncool to admit that you liked the music from that era, and most particularly the music from those films' soundtracks. It has slowly become okay to admit you like, say, Echo and the Bunnymen, but to actually admit their influence into your songwriting is still uncool. Take a look at reviews from some of the bands that do like, say, the Editors or White Lies or Sweden's awesome Mary Onettes: to a one, they're all about "derivative" and "aping the sounds of the 80s" or whatever. Do a record that sounds like it was cut in 1968 and you're FUCKING AWESOME (hello, MGMT!). Do a record that sounds like the self-titled Echo and the Bunnymen record, though, and you're "derivative."

I guess it's 'cause we're not far enough away from that era to think that stuff is "forward-thinking" instead of "backward-thinking," or something, because that's what everybody does -- channel their influences into their songwriting in one way or another. Nobody exists in a vaccuum. It's just down to which influences are cool at the moment.

So what I'm doing is very specific: I'm writing the soundtrack to an imaginary John Hughes film. THE BEST JOHN HUGHES FILM EVER. It exists only in my imagination (and yours, if you want it to!), but it stars everybody from those films that you love doing awesome stuff that you wanted them to do. And it has a prom in it. There is definitely a prom in it. And the soundtrack is all Blue Sky Blackout, but of course it has to have the characteristics of the music of that era which are, in my opinion:

- Overarching romanticism
- Heaping dollops of sexy melancholy
- Either brilliantly post-punk major chords or achingly post-punk minor chords
- Swank, low-sung vocals
- Dance beats, so Molly Ringwald can do the "white-girl sidestep"
- Chiming, soaring guitars and thunking, driving bass.

So far I've written three songs: "Don't It Drag You Down," which traffics in the kind of optimistic psychedelic that Echo and the Bunnymen did in their heyday, "Figurehead" which is a kind of post-punk angular disco song like an aggressive New Order or something, and "Breaking Windows," which sounds like the prom song that the Psychedelic Furs never wrote.

I have more either demoed or coming down the creative tube into my head. But just so you know what you're hearing tonight -- I thought I'd throw my manifesto out there.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

New Blue Sky Blackout single!!

For those of you keeping track (and still reading this blog!!) I have a new band, called Blue Sky Blackout. That's them above -- from left to right, Mykl Westbrooks, my former Landing Gear cronie on guitar, Christian Erickson of Astronaut Wife, Passage and Judgement of Paris on lead vocals, Brandon Dalida who was in Medication with me (and is currently also in our sister band Mercurial Rage), Tim Ritter who was in Astronaut Wife and the last incarnation of Lunar 9, Marc Iwanin, also from Medication, and yours truly.

We recorded a new 3-sided single, out now on Susstones, called "Clear From A Mile Away." Go now and get it! IT'S FREE. Just click the link and download!

Go now and get it!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Why Yacht Rock Is Good

Okay, so with all this recent controversy about whether or not a Yacht Rock Night at King's Wine Bar is musically justified, I felt the time was right to lay down why exactly I like the stuff. Because I do genuinely like a lot of the music, divorced entirely from irony, and I have thought a great deal about why this music is so critically vilified, at least by a certain generation of music fans, and why it is, in fact, absolutely musically justifiable in many ways.

First off, to define terms. Yacht Rock is music from the late 70s characterized primarily by it's "smooth" sound, a combination of white-boy funk and soul and session professionalism. Heard the Doobie Brothers fronted by Michael McDonald doing "What A Fool Believes?" That's Yacht Rock.

Its recent resurgence in popularity comes from the folks behind "Yacht Rock," a Channel 101 web program that ran weekly a few years back but which has never once dipped in popularity since it was canceled. The guys behind the show -- J.D. Ryznar, Hunter Stair, "Hollywood" Steve Huey -- genuinely love this music while realizing also that there's an inherent hilarity to the rich-white-guy scene behind it. First, go watch all 11 episodes, then come back.

I'll wait.

It's entirely possible that after watching those that you might already have developed a new-found appreciation for the music contained within. Those episodes are some of the best/funniest stuff on the web, and those guys definitely give the stuff a humanity and humor that divorces it from your memories of overplay on FM radio and gives it a new context, which may be all you needed. You might have been a closet Yacht Rock fan all along and just didn't know it (that was true for me).

It's entirely possible, too, that after watching those episodes you simply said "but that stuff still sucks, any amount of funny shit doesn't conceal its absolute, objective suckiness." It is to you that I speak, now.

Any discussion of Yacht Rock, like any discussion of any critically reviled music (say, Phil Collins) has to start with why we DON'T like it, because there are so many layers to the revilement -- many of them knee-jerk and false, many of them "true" but only from a certain point of view -- that they have to be knocked down before we can build up anything new. So let's start knocking. And the easiest way to examine why Yacht Rock is so reviled is to take one particular part of the genre and examine it closer. So let's take a look at Michael McDonald.

So why do we hate Michael McDonald?

1. I mean, come on, LOOK AT THE GUY. Okay, really? Because why is he any more physically objectionable than any other prematurely-white-haired bearded guy, of which there are many in this world? In this picture, he's no different physically than, say, Carl Wilson from the Beach Boys or the beardy hipster downstairs listening to "Meriwether Post Pavilion." So let's just take out that particular complaint, because, c'mon, reviling someone based on how they look is pretty stupid, unless we're talking about the lead singer of Train.

2. I can't stand his voice, because it's adenoidal, soulless and awful. Okay, fair enough, that's a matter of taste, and I can't really tell you that your taste is wrong per se, but I will ask if you've ever gotten angry for people using that particular argument about why they don't like this guy here:

Or this guy here:

Because I know I have. Or not angry, but I've thought "but those guys have done so much great songwriting, I can't believe they're being reduced to just a nasal, adenoidal voice." I will also ask what your qualifier for "soulful" is? Because to the naked ear Michael McDonald sounds quite soulful in terms of his inflection and technique. Are you putting something behind the qualification of "soulful" i.e. genuine pain or a perception that there's "something deeper" that he lacks? In which case I'd say that's entirely subjective and based entirely on observation which may indeed be false -- unless you know Mike McDonald, and I bet you don't.

Furthermore, a lot of the things McDonald is vilified for vocally are things that are done by other 70s artists people like -- most of them black soul singers, who are definitely not vilified. I'd argue that a double standard is applied to McDonald's voice based partly on #1 and partly on just the knowledge that he's a white guy singing soul music, which makes him vilifiable, if that makes sense.

3. His music is slick and corporate, and he's a shill for the man. This all boils down to what "corporate" means exactly. By "corporate" do you mean "he's signed to a major label?" Because so were lots of other people including those two guys I showed you above, so I hope you don't mean that. What you probably mean is that his music sounds "jazzy" and extremely well-constructed, and you are trained to think these particular characteristics are anti-rock, which necessarily must be gritty and simplistic rather than slick and overconstructed. But, okay, does that mean that all jazz musicians are also "corporate?" Just certain ones? Is all jazz-inflected rock necessarily "corporate?" Were the Soft Machine corporate? Is being anti-rock a bad thing? Is all rock necessarily supposed to be blues-inflected instead, and if so, where does that leave, say, Pink Floyd, who were not necessarily blues-inflected and frequently very, very slick? Where does that leave someone like, say, Peter Gabriel or Robert Fripp who were also very very slick and anti-rock and who spent a great deal of time polishing their music in the studio but who you probably don't characterize as being "corporate" per se?

Just asking questions here. I'd argue that "corporate" says a lot more about your perception of a person or a scene rather than the actual person themselves, their drives, their musical influences, etc. It says a lot about several constructs you've learned to believe regarding punk rock, other musical styles, and who is "real" and who is "not real," and I'd argue these are just that -- constructs, not at all based on reality but how you've been taught to perceive reality. Again, unless you know Mike McDonald and can tell me you've had talks with him about how he was making purposely soulless music to make cash, which I bet you haven't. It's a rock-crit party-line, nothing more.

4. His songs suck. This is purely subjective. How do his songs suck? They're enormously well-played, frequently clever melodically, do unexpected things harmonically (that falsetto bit in "What A Fool Believes" comes sorta out of nowhere, and it gets up there), frequently have a rather interesting groove (listen to "How Do The Fools Survive" off "Minute By Minute" -- that's almost funk) and always have great, memorable hooks, which is why they're frequently hits. They're smart and don't play to a lowest common denominator despite being sort of universally liked across many demographic groups. And thirty years down the line, they're still getting played and argued about, a lot, moreso than certain lumpen blandments from the 70s and moreso than certain very "hip" artists. There are lots of characteristics of his songs that I'd argue strongly make them "good" or at least assailably bad. Really all this means is "I don't like the kind of music he plays," and fair enough.

5. He's bland. I dunno, I find his music rather exciting at times -- his work with the Doobies, his solo work (at least his early solo work, during the Yacht Rock era) and his guest spots with the Dan. Which of us is right? Who could ever know? How do you define "bland" exactly? See #3. Construct / opinion.

6. He's unip. And I'd argue this is probably the #1 reason for his critical revilement: the Doobie Brothers have never been hip, probably never will be hip. They're not avant garde particularly, they're not cool and they're not really trying to be. They're very talented, knowledgable, musically-talented white guys from LA playing slick, constructed, soulful music to make people happy, exactly the kind of people-pleasin' music that got people up in arms and caused punk to be invented in the first place. The problem is that I think hipsters, in particular, tend to believe that music that's unhip is also necessarily bad music, because they live in a little bubble and are really unable to see outside that bubble and take in the notion that perhaps music they're unfamiliar with (because it's unhip) might be interesting or good. Anyway, "hip" is the biggest and falsest construct of all.

The point is: most people don't really think much about WHY they don't like something. "It's not because it's unhip, it's because it sucks." I hear that a lot, and it annoys, because "sucks" is not a valid criticism. "That song has an awful melody, the arrangement is poorly-constructed, the lyrics are godawful" -- those are criticisms, and possibly valid ones, depending, but "sucks" is not.

So you're saying: "what is there to LIKE about Yacht Rock, if most of the reasons I didn't like it for so long are supposedly "invalid" according to you? Give me something I can actually hold onto, here, or I'm outta here and back to my Arcade Fire LPs."

Let's go group by group:

Steely Dan: As the Yacht Rock guys say, the main reason to like the Dan are their "dark, sarcastic" lyrics. My friend Chris DeCrocker and my friend Brian Mattson both correctly like to say that the Dan are more subversive than the Sex Pistols, and I tend to agree. Because the Sex Pistols marry their dark sarcasm to angry music, which is totally expected. You listen to the Pistols, you completely expect to hear songs about abortions and hating the Queen and shit. The Dan lull you with their brilliantly-constructed, studio-bound smooth jazz-rock and you expect shallow lyrics to go with it -- but what you get, instead, is some of the most abstract, angry lyrics of all time. Have a listen to "Time Out Of Mind," for example -- the music marries a disco beat to a sparse, smooth piano groove that's so spare it's barely there. Perfect for a lyric about love, or the joys of a great martini. Instead, they deliver a bitter, brutal song about heroin use. It's that kind of left turn that makes 'em so interesting. I mean, sure, their arrangements are fantastic, minimalistic and funky, and Donald Fagen's voice is a far better delivery mechanism than it's given credit for, and both Fagen and Becker are geniuses at getting the most out of the least groove-wise, but it's all about the dark sarcasm.

Hall and Oates: Despite being portrayed in Yacht Rock as the nemeses of all things smooth, Hall and Oates are actually some of the smoothest and best of the Yacht Rock crew. I'd argue that their greatest hits -- "Maneater," "I Can't Go For That," "Private Eyes," "One On One," "Sara Smile," "Kiss On My List" and about five others -- are some of the most enduring classics from the early 80s, and will continue to be beloved in the far future. Hall is a winning, likeable singer who neither has to force the soul nor become affected in any way to work perfectly, and Oates is...Oates, with one of the best rock 'staches ever. Their melodies are uniformly fantastic and near-perfect, the lyrics are neither stupid nor cliched and frequently fully clever, and their songs are always awesomely arranged. And as proved by a harpsichord-rock version of "Maneater" I did ten-ish years ago (ahead of the zeitgeist, thanks!), you can take their songs out of context and they still absolutely work as fantastic songs. Plus: much like the Bee Gees, try playing a Hall and Oates song at a party. Seriously, try it sometime. Watch your party INSTANTLY kick into gear.

The Doobies and Mike McDonald: I hit on this earlier, but let me also point out, as the Yacht Rock guys did, that there's some genuine grooves in these guys' music. There's a reason Warren G. sampled "I Keep Forgetting" for "Regulate" -- that song is genuinely funky and relies on a brilliant, rather genius keyboard groove.

Christopher Cross: I'm listening to Radiohead's "House of Cards" as I write this and I'm wondering why their keyboard-wash smoothness is okay, but something genuinely atmospheric, washy and weird and conversely beautiful in ALMOST EXACTLY THE SAME WAY like Cross' "Sailing" is not? Also great: his driving, conga-driven "Ride Like The Wind" which propels itself along on a nifty piano engine.

LOGGINS: It's hard to justify Loggins like I can with the Dan and McDonald because I *do* realize, believe me, how schlocky Loggins can get. I mean, there really isn't any justification for "Footloose" unless it really is about dismembering Jimmy Buffett fans like Yacht Rock #11 would have you believe, and "Danger Zone"'s slap bass is really some of the worst stuff ever. And yet...I'm a total sucker for "This Is It"'s slick grooves, and the moment where Loggins comes in with his gritty "Are you gonna wait for a sign" is genuinely nifty and not unpassionate. And "Keep The Fire"'s primal screams (ha) are pretty great too -- if you divorced that song from its cliche-ridden arrangement and schlocky lyrics I think it'd actually be a pretty phenomenal song with a magnificent and rather soaring hook.

Basically: so much of why so much music is reviled has more to do with the mindset of the listener, learned constructs of what is supposed to be good and what isn't, what's okay to like and what isn't, and subjective taste-based complaints that freqently have nothing to do with the music itself. Approach Yacht Rock with an open mind, listen to the songs as SONGS, and listen to the qualities that make some of it some of the best music ever (Dan! Dan!) and you might actually find yourself wearing a captain's hat at the next Yacht Rock night Jake Rudh hosts.

Like, er, me.